The annual National Astronomy Meeting was being held in Belfast. Having never been to Northern Ireland, I thought I would go, and feeling environmentally conscientious I decided to travel overland. My train/boat ticket from London to Belfast and back was the same price as a flight, and I'd see all the nations in the British Isles on the way. My journey started with a train from Euston to Holyhead. It was raining when I left London, but sunny in Wales, as I got on the ferry for the three hour journey across the Irish Sea to Dublin.
By the time we docked in Dublin it was cold and raining. There was snow on the hills along the Irish coast. I got a bus to the centre of town, where I had a couple of hours to kill before the Belfast train. I walked along by the Liffey, took a few photos and felt like I'd seen pretty much all there is to see in Dublin on my previous two trips here. I walked up to Connolly station and got on the train heading north.
The train to Belfast was busy but I got a window seat, and watched the Irish countryside pass by as night fell. It was raining heavily when I arrived, and it looked like being a miserable walk to the university. Luckily the rain soon stopped, and I found my way to the city centre, which was empty and quiet, and then to the hostel I was staying at, just across the road from Queens University.
I spent the week around the university, meeting other astronomers, giving a talk, watching friends' talks, and checking out local drinking and eating venues. All my friends from UCL went back to London on the Thursday or Friday, but I wasn't heading back until Sunday. I went out to explore the city properly on the Saturday, and headed out to the Falls Road.
Throughout my life, news had often been dominated by the Troubles. I'd heard so much about the terrible things that had happened in Northern Ireland. In the centre of the city, there was nothing to show what struggles the city had seen, but the Falls Road was a different matter. As I walked out of the city centre, past the Divis Tower where British army snipers once watched over the surroundings, the past became more and more visible.
Here, and on the protestant Shankill Road, there are a lot of murals. They began to appear when the Troubles started in the late 1960s, and thousands have been painted over the years. The murals along the Falls Road reminded me of the murals I'd seen in León, in Nicaragua, which depicted the history of the struggles there.
I headed back across the Irish Sea. The ferry journey went quickly at first, and we had great views of the islands up the Scottish Coast. After about an hour we turned into Loch Ryan, and I presumed that we'd dock at Stranraer within a few minutes. But instead we began an unexplained tour around the loch, rotating around and around in the evening sun, within sight of the port. Eventually an announcement was made that due to tidal conditions we couldn't dock yet, and we'd be hanging around for about half an hour. An hour later we had still not docked, and Stena had not seen fit to make any more announcements. Finally, an hour and a half late, we docked.
The train to Glasgow had long since left, but Stena had organised a bus to Ayr. I had no idea where Ayr was but presumed this would be useful. At Ayr I got a train to Glasgow, and now it was looking pretty touch and go as to whether I would get to Glasgow in time for the sleeper train to London. We got to Glasgow Central with about a minute to spare, and I sprinted around the station looking for the right platform. When I got there, the train was still there, but the doors had just been locked. A conductor was standing by the back of the train, and I asked him if I couldn't get on. He said the doors could not be unlocked now they were closed. I stood there in disbelief as the train began to pull away.
I was furious with Stena. Tidal conditions? You'd think they'd know these things in advance. And not keeping passengers informed is just incredibly stupid. No way am I travelling with Stena again. Angrily I walked to a nearby hostel and booked in for a night. Then I had to pay a hundred pounds the next morning to get a new train ticket back to London. Possibly the worst thing about this journey was that all my friends had told me that it was crazy not to fly. I knew I could expect no sympathy, only intense mockery, when I finally made it back.